01.09.2010 -

Interview with Professor James Heckman, Noted scholar and Nobel Prize winner

©University of Chicago

Noted scholar and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman. Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Economics Research Center and the Center for Social Program Evaluation at the Harris School, answers questions about the economic return on early childhood investment. He also argues that investing in children’s socio-cultural skills – such as perseverance, motivation and self-confidence – will provide more economic and social return than investing in social programmes or infrastructure.

1.   Could you briefly outline the main arguments and key research findings on the importance of ECCE for productivity and economic growth?

  • The compelling arguments for ECCE being a wise investment

Families play a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes. The accident of birth is a major source of inequality. Recent research shows that in American society, about half the inequality in the present value of lifetime earnings is due to factors determined before adulthood. It is possible that the figure is as high, or even higher, in Western Europe because labor market inequality is lower there. Compared to 50 years ago, a greater fraction of American children is being born into disadvantaged families where investments in children are smaller than in advantaged families. Growing unassimilated immigrant populations in Western Europe create similar adverse trends there. Many major economic and social problems such as crime, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, and adverse health conditions are linked to low levels of skill and ability in society.

  • Ability gaps start early

Ability gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged open up early in the lives of children. Family environments of young children are major predictors of cognitive and socioemotional abilities, as well as of a variety of outcomes such as crime and health. Experimental evidence on the positive effects of early interventions on children in disadvantaged families is consistent with a large body of nonexperimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms child outcomes. If society intervenes early enough, it can improve cognitive and socioemotional abilities, and the health of disadvantaged children. Early interventions promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy. These interventions are estimated to have high benefit-cost ratios and rates of return.

Early childhood is more important in the presence of critical and sensitive periods in the development of many capabilities. This has been documented by many scholars for humans and animals. I myself, with other coauthors, also showed that the early years in the life of a child are sensitive periods for the production of cognitive skills, and the adolescent years are sensitive periods for the production of noncognitive skills. Later remediation for early disadvantage is costly and often ineffective. It is economically more efficient to prevent human development problems than to remediate them.  

  • Early intervention pays higher returns than later intervention

As programs are currently configured, interventions early in the life cycle of disadvantaged children have much higher economic returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, tuition subsidies, or expenditure on police. The returns are much higher than those found in most active labor market programs in Europe. 

Life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill, and skill cross-fosters motivation. If a child is not motivated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, he or she will fail in social and economic life. The longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage. A major refocus of policy is required to capitalize on knowledge about the importance of the early years in creating inequality and in producing skills for the workforce.

  • The importance of non-cognitive factors and environment in success  

Cognitive ability is known to be a powerful determinant of socioeconomic success. However, cognition is not the sole determinant of achievement, nor necessarily a primary determinant of achievement. Other aspects of character including socio-emotional or noncognitive traits such as personality, health, mental health, perseverance, time preference, risk aversion, self-esteem, self-control, preference for leisure, conscientiousness, and motivation are also powerful predictors of socio-economic success and are as powerful as cognitive abilities in producing many adult outcomes.

Further, the evidences suggested by recent research substantially amend a traditional belief about the importance of IQ. The analysis in an often-cited book

The Bell Curve assigned a primary role to genetics in explaining the origins of differences in human cognitive ability and a primary role to cognitive ability in shaping adult outcomes. If cognitive ability is genetically determined and is primary in shaping adult outcomes, public policy toward disadvantaged populations is limited to transfer payments to the less able. Experiments that enrich the early environments of disadvantaged children provide powerful evidence against the genetic determinism. Recent research establishes the power of socioemotional abilities and an important role for environment and intervention in creating abilities. The field of epigenetics demonstrates how genetic expression is strongly influenced by environmental influences and that environmental effects on gene expression can be inherited.

In analyzing policies that foster skills and abilities, society should recognize the multiplicity of human abilities. Currently, public policy in the United States and many other countries focuses on promoting and measuring cognitive ability through IQ and achievement tests. A focus on achievement test scores ignores important non-cognitive factors that promote success in school and life.

2.     Although most of your research has been based on the North American experience, could you cite some examples drawn from countries in other parts of the world that demonstrate the linkages between ECCE, human capital formation and economic development?

Some European studies can be cited. The well-known Romanian orphanage study, the “Sure Start” program in the UK, the Irish “Preparing Future Life” program are examples of experimental studies. Researches using non-experimental data in Europe such as the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSEOP) and the British Cohort Study (BCS) also can be mentioned. All studies point in the same direction.  

3.   A major concern in almost all countries is the gap between those children who benefit from good nutrition, a healthy and secure environment, cognitive stimulation and interaction with caring adults – and those who do not. What is the evidence for the equalizing power of ECCE and what can governments do to promote equity?

 It is not simply the matter of parents’ income. What really matters is the quality of early environments which children are born to. There are substantial differences in family environments and investments in children across socioeconomic groups.

Recent research demonstrates important differences in the family environments and investments of advantaged and disadvantaged children. Gaps in cognitive stimulation, affection, punishment, and other parental investments for children from families of different socioeconomic status open up early. Intact families invest far greater amounts in their children than do single parent families although the exact mechanisms causing this remain to be established.

There are substantial gaps in cognitive stimulation and affection at early ages by socio-economic groups, and they persist throughout childhood. Family environments for many children are worsening around the world. A divide is opening up in many other countries between the advantaged and the disadvantaged in the quality of early family environments. Those born into disadvantaged environments are receiving relatively less stimulation and child development resources than those from advantaged families. This phenomenon creates inequality within and across generations. Policies that supplement the child rearing resources available to disadvantaged families will reduce inequality and raise productivity.

  • No equity-efficiency trade-off: a unique feature of early childhood interventions

Economists often discuss equity/efficiency tradeoffs. A policy that improves efficiency often promotes inequality (e.g., a reduction in capital gains taxes). For adolescent and young adult interventions, there are substantial equity-efficiency tradeoffs for interventions in the lives of the less able, especially those that are targeted towards fostering cognitive capabilities. This is due to dynamic complementarity, or synergy, in the process of human skill formation.

Remedial interventions for disadvantaged adolescents who do not receive a strong initial foundation of skills face an equity-efficiency tradeoff. They are difficult to justify on the grounds of economic efficiency and generally have low rates of return. But early interventions are different. If early investments are followed by continued high quality learning experiences, then it promotes economic efficiency and reduces lifetime inequality. There is no equity-efficiency trade-off for early interventions for the disadvantaged. This is a unique feature of early childhood intervention programs.  

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